During his public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that he recused himself from Justice Department investigations concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian officials because of a department rule prohibiting his participation.
"I recused myself, not because of any asserted wrongdoing, or any belief that I may have been involved in any wrongdoing in the campaign," Sessions said, "but because a Department of Justice regulation ... I felt, required it."
The rule that Sessions cited — 28 CFR 45.2 — states that DOJ employees may not "participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, or who would be directly affected by the outcome."
Sessions said that because he served as an adviser and surrogate for the Trump campaign, he had to recuse himself from DOJ investigations into potential collusion between Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
The attorney general recused himself on March 2 after reports emerged that Sessions had twice met with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the course of the election, contradicting statements he made during his Senate confirmation hearing, in which he said under oath that he did not have contacts with Russians during the campaign.
Following the bombshell report, Democrats swiftly demanded Sessions' resignation, while a growing group of Republicans called on the attorney general to recuse himself from campaign-related investigations.
During questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden later in the hearing, Sessions said that there were no classified reasons for his recusal, as former FBI Director James Comey suggested in his Senate testimony last week. Sessions also claimed that he had informally recused himself since he was confirmed to lead the Justice Department.
"I basically recused myself the first day I got into the office because I never accessed files, I never learned the names of investigators, I never met with them, I never asked for any documentation," Sessions told Wyden. "The documentation — what little I received — was mostly already in the media."
But, Sessions argued, his participation in the Justice Department's formal recommendation to the president to fire Comey, who was leading the FBI's investigation into potential ties between the campaign and Russia, did not violate his recusal.
"I do not believe that it's a sound position to say that if you're recused for a single case .... you can't make a decision about the leadership in that agency," Sessions said.